I wrote a bit about why we decided to do fieldwork at Iita in this post, but now that we have been and come back, I thought it would be nice to elaborate.
One of the key reasons we wanted to go back to this site after fieldwork in 2006 and 2012 was the fact that it is actively eroding. Photographs of the site taken by members of the Crocker Land expedition show a sloping bank at the west side of the site, heavily vegetated in some places. When we first worked at the site in 2006 we noted that this was no longer the case – the bank was now much steeper and less vegetated. This change is clearly a result of erosion. The loss of vegetation also increased the site’s vulnerability to further loss.
That year, and again in 2012 John took a series of photographss documenting the shoreline of the site. From these it was clear that the erosion was ongoing and relatively rapid. John took another series of images this summer and in the coming months will work to make detailed comparisons with the two earlier series. We expect this to confirm what we observed in the field: loss continues and is most dramatic on the eastern part of the site.
Erosion is an issue of great and growing concern in the Arctic, and not just for archaeologists of course. Melting sea ice and thawing permafrost combine to create conditions that exacerbate erosion in vulnerable locations. At Iita, it is the loss of sea ice that seems particularly important. When ice is present, it protects the shore from waves that would otherwise cause erosion. Both fast ice, frozen to the land, and floating pack ice prevent waves from reaching the land. In late June 2006 when we arrived at the site the shore was still protected by an ‘ice foot’, a sturdy fringe of ice at the high tide line that persisted for some weeks before melting.
This year, the ice foot had already disappeared when we arrived but at times floating ice drifted in from Smith Sound, calming the water in front of the site, even when waves were crashing ashore beyond the ice. When the ice is not present, the site is vulnerable, especially at high tide. Although we have not witnessed it, researchers working with hunters in nearby Qaanaaq have documented that ice is forming later in the fall, which extends the time that the shoreline is unprotected.
Elsewhere in the Arctic thawing permafrost is the main culprit, resulting is some very dramatic losses – our colleague Anne Jensen has been working to salvage one such site, Walakpa, on the north coast of Alaska – follow her blog to read more. And these are not the only challenges – rising sea levels and increasing storminess are also playing a role in the north and elsewhere. In the face of these threats, archaeologists from around the world are working together to develop strategies for coping with the impending loss of significant cultural heritage resources. Our work at Iita is just one part of this bigger picture. In future posts I’ll write more about why this is a particularly important site to study.